Two years ago, at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, the earth shrugged and added another chapter to the sequence of tragedies that define Haiti's history. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people, destroyed 80 percent of the capital city of Port-au-Prince and left more than a million Haitians homeless. Nearly all public buildings were destroyed, and with them much of a generation of civil servants, doctors, nurses, engineers, professors and students.
The world responded with a generosity that left Haitians — accustomed to being treated as world pariahs — truly surprised and grateful. The Obama administration immediately pledged $100 million in support and sent 3,000 troops to manage the airport and a hospital ship to treat the most severely wounded. Help came from governments of France, Switzerland, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile and Colombia and myriad private groups. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush formed the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to raise money for the reconstruction.
Even the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti in an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship, rose to the occasion. President Leonel Fernández promised to help rebuild the world's first black republic. At a meeting of some 90 countries and international organizations at the United Nations in May of 2010, donors pledged $5.3 billion. Haiti's recovery seemed well under way.
Two years later, the outlook for Haiti's future is a lot less clear. The media spotlight has moved away from Haiti. The cameras are gone, as are most of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that rushed to provide emergency care. The big international entities with histories in Haiti, like the U.N. and the United Nations Development Program, remain, but much of the promised aid money was never delivered. The consensus, in Haiti and abroad, is that little progress has been made, and a sense of pessimism has enveloped the country and its million-strong overseas community.
But beyond disappointment at the slow progress of reconstruction, many Haitians and Haitian Americans have begun to lose faith. We have begun to wonder if the sharp divisions of class and color in Haiti are an unavoidable obstacle to progress, and realize that they must be overcome for the poor Caribbean nation of 10 million to move forward.
Divided by Race and Class
There is reason to doubt the leadership of Michel Martelly, the president who took office on May 14 last year. He was a popular singer and bandleader known as "Sweet Micky," famous for his outrageous behavior onstage, and lacking any significant management experience. Martelly's appeal to Haitian youths and those seeking to break away from Haiti's stagnant politics-as-usual helped him easily defeat Mirlande Manigat, a law professor and former first lady, in a much-disputed runoff.
But since taking office, Martelly has surrounded himself with a cabinet largely drawn from Haiti's racially mixed "mulatto" elite and has suggested reconstituting the Haitian army, abolished in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide because of its long history of repression.
Haiti's light-skinned elite has long dominated the country's economics and manipulated its politics. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, 3 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the economy.
Descended primarily from 18th-century French settlers and 19th-century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, this privileged class owns most major enterprises and has long played a backstage role in politics, financing some candidates and — some believe — both the coup that brought down Aristide in 1991 and the ragtag army that drove him to exile in South Africa during his second term in 2004. In the Le Monde article, members of the Haitian elite blame the country's political instability for their unwillingness to take a more dominant role in investing in the country's future.
Foreign reporters often ignore Haiti's black elite and middle class. In a country where 95 percent of the population is dark-skinned, they are not as visible to foreigners — and rarely as wealthy — as the light-skinned entrepreneurs who dominate business. Yet many black Haitians proudly trace their roots to their country's independence struggle and are descended from historical figures.
Doctors, engineers, lawyers, musicians, scholars and politicians often come from this group, which was nurtured by mid-20th-century President François Duvalier — and then brutally repressed. That black middle class has been the biggest source of talent lost by Haiti. One study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 80 percent of Haitians with more than a secondary education have left the country. A struggling economy means that even more will make plane tickets their ballots — and seek opportunities with which they can succeed.
Following the Money
But the most visible positive economic force in Haiti in the last two years has been Denis O'Brien, an Irish billionaire and telecom mogul who owns Digicel, Haiti's largest mobile phone network. His company is Haiti's largest investor, biggest taxpayer and biggest employer. O'Brien's aggressive moves, including putting up $16.5 million of his own money to rebuild the landmark Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, are a rebuff to the timidity of Haiti's upper class.
In a review of progress since the earthquake, Le Nouvelliste, Haiti's establishment newspaper, enumerates the piles of debris that still block large parts of the capital city, the hundreds of thousands of homeless still living in camps, the unfulfilled promise of thousands of new housing units and the fact that not a single public building has been rebuilt. "Slow or illusionary, the reconstruction seems to have lead in its wings," the paper declared (French).
One reason may be that so little of the money spent so far has actually reached Haiti. An analysis by the alternative news site Counterpunch found that donors gave Haiti $1.6 billion in relief aid and more than $2 billion in recovery aid over the last two years.
"It turns out that almost none of the money that the general public thought was going to Haiti actually went directly to Haiti," the publication reported. "The international community chose to bypass the Haitian people, Haitian nongovernmental organizations and the government of Haiti. Funds were instead diverted to other governments, international NGOs and private companies. Despite this near total lack of control of the money by Haitians, if history is an indication, it is quite likely that the failures will ultimately be blamed on the Haitians themselves in a 'blame the victim' reaction."
Foreign aid donors often bypass Haiti's government and its private companies because of widespread corruption. But another reason is that the Haitian government has been slow to put forward proposals for reconstruction or show any ability to carry out its own objectives.
Bearing the Weight of History
The failure of the reconstruction effort has triggered some rigorous self-examination among Haitians. René Depestre, a respected Haitian poet and Duvalier opponent who spent decades in exile in Cuba and Europe, asks if Haiti, created through a bloody revolution that required fighting off France, England and Spain, missed a step in building a nation.
"Haiti has always been in crisis," he told an interviewer for a Haitian magazine. Depestre recalled meeting a Polish historian who had done a brilliant study of the many revisions of the Haitian Constitution and praised its clarity. "But this constitutional life has no roots in the daily life and institutions of the country," he says. "We've never had a state."
None of Haiti's problems are unsolvable. But the country cannot move forward without overcoming its long-standing divisions of class and color. It needs to embrace the often-reviled Diaspora Haitians who have acquired knowledge and management skills abroad.
I have relatives in all classes in Haiti: the mulattos, the black elite and the black middle class. I lost an aunt and a cousin in the 2010 earthquake. My childhood home was destroyed.
As a Diaspora Haitian, I have witnessed unusually candid conversations among all my relatives. Those with a deep commitment to a better Haiti cannot be simply defined by skin color. Some cousins who operate a hospital kept it going 24 hours a day for several weeks after the 2010 earthquake and treated thousands of victims. Many members of my family have devoted themselves to public service and public good.
But the wealthiest Haitians live in a bubble of secure compounds, armored cars and bodyguards that reflect their fear of the masses of poor Haitians. Many Haitian business leaders to whom I've spoken claim no obligation to Haiti beyond providing jobs — and then complain about being unfairly maligned by foreign reporters.
It's true that if you believe in capitalism, being rich should not be a sin only in Haiti. But being rich and not having the courage to take entrepreneurial risks — or to develop a philanthropic structure to save your country — is a damnable offense.
On the other side, my black relatives, even when successful, often chafe at the barriers placed in their paths. They have reason to complain.
I remember a conversation with a light-skinned relative who was also a physician. I had heard about a brilliant young man from a poor black family who had immigrated to the U.S., attended Harvard Medical School, acquired a sought-after specialty and come home to Haiti to set up a practice. He was struggling to make ends meet. "Why won't the elite go to him?" I asked the doctor.
"Because we don't know him," he replied.
If, after 208 years of independence, Haitians can't get to know one another and to trust one another across these barriers of class, race and history, then no amount of foreign aid and international goodwill will save Haiti.
Joel Dreyfuss, senior editor-at-large of The Root, is living in Paris and writing a book about his family's role in 250 years of Haiti's history.